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McKinsey’s 2023 Women in the Workplace report covers four key myths related to women and work. Here we’re diving into these as well to see what needs to shift to support more women leaders to step up.

Myth 1: Women are becoming less ambitious

Reality: Women are more ambitious than before the pandemic

Many of us will have heard this one more time than we would care to admit. Why does our organisation not have as diverse a senior leadership team? Well, it’s just that women don’t have the same level of ambition to get there.

McKinsey’s research shows this to be patently untrue. At every stage of their careers, women are just as interested and committed to being promoted as their male colleagues. And yet the myth persists that they are not only less ambitious in the first place, but that currently that ambition is waning even further.

Rather than the pandemic having dampened women’s ambitions it appears to have fuelled them, with a significant majority of women, but most especially women of colour, having the desire to take the next step up. The flexibility that the post-pandemic world provides has opened up greater opportunities for women in particular to see that next step as possible. Alongside it, the increased flexibility has opened women’s eyes to the possibility of a greater balance between work and life. Supporting women to find even more flexibility and balance only fuels their desire to grow and develop into the next generation of leaders.

Woman turned from her desk, with its monitor and keyboard. She is looking at you inquisitively over her glasses in disbelief

Myth 2: The biggest barrier to women’s advancement is the glass ceiling

Reality: The biggest obstacle is actually the ‘broken rung’

The ‘broken rung’ describes the first critical step up in a career – into a first manager role – and this continues to be a big challenge for women with fewer women than men promoted at this stage, and concerningly, the figures are going backwards, especially for women of colour.

Organisations need to be aware of this, especially so in the light of myth 1, and look at what they can do to fix this rung. This could be included, but not limited to:

  • Women’s leadership development programmes to support their female employees to fully realise their potential and their ambitions
  • Clear performance metrics and monitoring of access to opportunities
  • Flexibility of working arrangements – as we saw above, this acts to support women in taking those key steps up and increasing diversity at more senior levels
  • Fostering an inclusive culture, including ensuring hiring and promotion panels are themselves suitably diverse.

Fixing the broken rung opens up the pipeline to more senior leadership – currently, there is an increasing skew at each level with men outnumbering women more significantly as we move up the leadership ladder. Creating an environment that supports women to take that first step is a game changer.

Asian woman reading a document at her work desk. Her mouth is open in horror and her hand is lifting as if to put it in front of her mouth.

Myth 3: Microaggressions have a ‘micro’ impact

Reality: Microaggressions have a long and lasting impact on women

Many women experience daily microaggressions – the subtle, not obviously harmful, words and actions that relate to their gender, race or other aspects of their identity. Comments on women’s flexible working arrangements, on their appearance, on their emotional state or their judgment or having colleagues speaking over them or taking credit for their ideas have a lasting impact.

While the ‘micro’ nature of it may not seem damaging, the mental load of negotiating a workplace that allows this behaviour is draining and damaging to those affected and can lead to higher than normal rates of burnout or of employees choosing to leave the organisation.

Within our work we empower women to be able to set and maintain their own boundaries, to challenge where challenge is needed with confidence. However, this work is not solely down to the women of an organisation. Challenging microaggressions is a cultural issue and requires strong leadership and allyship across the board to ensure that it is addressed in full.

Man and woman at shared desk. He is talking on a monbile whilst looking at something on his laptop. She is rolling her eyes at what he is saying, whilst holding a cup of tea.

Myth 4: It’s mostly women who want – and benefit from – flexible working arrangements

Reality: Men and women see flexibility as a key benefit and critical to a company’s success

Since the pandemic, there have been repeated surveys showing that all employees, regardless of gender, appreciate the availability of flexible working arrangements, and further to this the availability of hybrid or remote working leads to better work-life balance and lower rates of burnout.

With increasing numbers of companies beginning to mandate returns to the office, this raises the concern on the impact on well-being across the board but especially on women where we have seen that flexibility creates more space for ambition and growth.

Here the myths come together, women with access to flexibility have the ability to explore their ambitions, step up and fix the broken rung and do it without needing the concerns around the impact of microaggressions that are more prevalent in the office environment.

So what can we conclude from these 4 myths? Women in the workplace matter. Women want to become leaders. Women want support to become leaders. And they want to do it in a way that works for them, feeling safe, valued and supported as they do it. 

Within SOAR we feel passionately that women should be able to make that step into leadership that they desire, in their own way, bringing their authentic selves without fear and in a way that feels not just sustainable but exciting and joyful even. Our programmes are designed to support your current and aspiring female leaders to take their next steps in just that way.

If you would like to understand more about our corporate training and coaching, or how we can support your Women’s Forum, Network or ERG then drop us a line at hello@soarleadership.co.uk.

**Reference: McKinsey Women in the Workplace 202 3